Tiger Recruitment: What business leaders should look for in an executive assistant

By  Zahra Clark

Zahra is Head of Tiger Recruitment in MENA, managing a broad range of clients including those within oil and gas, financial services and professional services sectors. Based in Dubai, Zahra has formerly held roles as a C-suite EA, a private PA and business manager between Dubai and London, so she has a unique insight into the individual requirements by both candidates and clients. 

What business leaders should look for in an executive assistant

A good executive assistant (EA) is worth their weight in gold – and more now than ever. As the pace and pressure of work increases, and digital technology makes it harder to switch off, EAs provide much-needed support. Not only do EAs help executives to manage their increasingly hectic schedules, but they can also play a role in helping to manage stress levels and achieve that elusive work-life balance. 

Research by Tiger Recruitment found that 75% of business leaders say having an assistant helps them manage stress and mental wellbeing, while those with a PA work around nine hours less per week than those without. PAs ease the burden of leadership in a number of ways, from giving executives more time to reflect and think, to acting as a ‘gatekeeper’, and helping them to eat healthily and exercise. Almost a quarter of bosses also say their EA enables them to spend more time at home with their family.

But finding the perfect PA isn’t easy, as it depends so much on personality and cultural fit. What suits one executive might not suit another, so getting the recruitment right is critical. Here are a few pointers on what to look for:  

  • Personality fit: Businesses often make the mistake of hiring for skillset alone, but then find that the ‘ideal candidate’ leaves after a few months as the culture or personality fit isn’t right. This is even more important when hiring for EAs, because they work so closely with the executive that they’re brought into support. So, while skills and experience are important, ensure you spend time digging into candidates' work styles and character traits before making a decision. One helpful approach is to carry out a practical task as part of the selection process. And, if in doubt, we advise going with your gut. 

  • Resilience: EAs need to be able to deal with a whole range of high-pressure situations and with a variety of different people. Part of their role is to be the gatekeeper to their boss and that means constantly deflecting calls and emails, and mediating with third parties, so that you don’t have to. They can frequently end up in the firing line, but a good PA should be able to take this kind of pressure in their stride. Their job is to ensure that your work-life runs as smoothly as possible. 

  • Discretion: It is essential to be able to completely trust your EA, as they will be privy to a myriad of confidential and sometimes sensitive information about you and your business. Discretion is therefore one of the top behaviours to look for in potential candidates, so be sure to ask about this during the interview stage. For example, have they handled confidential information before and what challenges did they face as a result?

  • Flexibility: As an executive, your daily routine probably involves travel, long days, late nights, or liaising with colleagues across the globe, and your EA needs to be able to support you, irrespective of the agenda on a given day. That means you need an assistant who is flexible and thrives in a fast-changing environment. The best EAs have the ability to anticipate your needs, whatever is happening.  

  • A positive attitude: In times of high pressure, the right EA can act as an important calming influence for executives and the wider team. Whether it’s assisting with last minute admin or technical issues before a big meeting, making a round of much-needed tea or coffee, or dashing for a lunch run when you don’t have time to eat, a positive attitude and reassuring manner make a huge difference. As the first port of call when you are approached about professional matters, being approachable and down to earth is also key. 

  • The potential to grow: Some businesses are realising that support staff are a highly skilled and adaptable resource that can be deployed strategically across various departments to consolidate existing teams. Traditionally known for taking meeting minutes and organising diaries, EAs are increasingly being called on to support with activities such as marketing, social media management, events management, investor relations, project management and more. So, when choosing an EA, try to find a candidate who can go beyond the ‘to do’ list to pick up new skills and responsibilities as required. 

  • Staying power: Finally, a CV that shows that an EA candidate has jumped from job-to-job should be an immediate red flag, as they will no doubt do the same again. The most successful EA relationships are those that stand the test of time, so if a candidate jumps ship too quickly, it is a sign that something isn’t right. Be sure to question any short-term roles during the interview process, as this is should give you a powerful insight into a candidate’s personality. 


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